Connor Hellebuyck celebrated his 28th birthday Wednesday, but he ended up being the one giving a gift.
The gift he gave his Winnipeg Jets teammates was a stupendous start in Game 1 of their first-round series with the heavily-favoured Edmonton Oilers.
Hellebuyck Weathered the Second-Period Storm
The birthday boy — who made four more saves than the age he turned — was stellar throughout, but especially in the second period when he turned away 15 shots.
After the Oilers registered just six shots in the first, they started to ramp up the pressure in the second. Jesse Puljujarvi did manage to break through for the game’s opening goal at 8:24, whacking home a loose puck that Hellebuyck lost sight of for a moment.
But after that — with the ice tilting in the Oilers’ direction — Hellebuyck refused to give up another, knowing a two-goal differential likely would have been lights out. He made a few key saves before Tucker Poolman tied the game at 11:01.
He was busy thereafter, but the reigning Vezina Trophy winner stayed locked in. By the time the clock ticked down and the teams headed off for the second intermission, the game was still tied and Hellebuyck was a big reason it was.
Hellebuyck Helped Preserve Tenuous Third-Period Lead
After Dominic Toninato tipped home a Logan Stanley point blast to give the Jets a 2-1 lead, the Oilers began to ratchet things up as they searched for the equalizer, forcing the Jets to deal with heavy doses of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid.
But Hellebuyck would not allow the Oilers to tally the game-tying goal, standing tall and most notably surviving a huge flurry of chances with less than five minutes left. Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler each added an empty netter to stretch the lead to 4-1 and cement the Game 1 victory.
Teams that go deep in the postseason always have a clutch goalie who can steal a game or two. Hellebuyck deserves a lot of credit: the ever-confident netminder was able to cast aside his subpar regular-season stats against McDavid and company (a 2-5-0 record, 3.96 GAA, and .877 SV%) to steal this one — even though the Jets were missing Pierre-Luc Dubois and Nikolaj Ehlers.
“I thought he was brilliant all night long,” said TSN’s Jamie McLennan post-game. “When you look at who the ‘X-Factors’ were coming in to this series, it was going to be Connor Hellebuyck… because he was going to even things out.”
“Inner slot shots, the Edmonton Oilers generated 13, so they had some Grade-A looks on the star netminder, and he was the difference,” McLennan continued. “He was really good in his net as for as economical, he didn’t have a lot of bad rebounds, he did a good job fighting through screens. Edmonton threw a lot at them and they generated a lot of chances but it was Connor Hellebuyck who delivered a massive win on the road for the Winnipeg Jets.Jamie McLennan on Connor Hellebuyck
A Win is the Perfect Way to Celebrate, Hellebuyck Says
“Today’s been an exciting day for me, everyone on the rink is making me feel real happy about my birthday, and this is the perfect way to celebrate it,” Hellebuyck said post-game in a media availability with Wheeler. “I thought it was a good team game tonight. Our details were right and our offensive game came when it needed to. It was a great team win tonight.”
It was Hellebuyck’s first-ever NHL start on his birthday.
In the 2018 Western Conference Final against the Vegas Golden Knights, he made starts the day before and the day after his 25th birthday — Game 4 and Game 5 of that series — but lost both as the Jets’ quest for the Cup came to an end.
Jets Have Confidence in Hellebuyck
The Jets will need more heroics from Hellebuyck if they want to slay the opponent that had their North-Division number all season long and beat them seven out of nine times.
“Our confidence is directly tied to him,” Wheeler offered. “The way he carries himself gives us confidence every single night. We know that goaltending means a lot this time of year and we have we believe the best goaltender in the league. That gives us a ton of confidence.” He added that the press should start bugging Hellebuyck about his age soon.
“We can’t make it easy for them,” Hellebuyck said of limiting the Oilers’ biggest stars. “You know they’re going to come with some fire next game and we’ve got to be prepared for that.
Declan Schroeder is a 26-year-old communications specialist and freelance journalist in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a diploma in Creative Communications with a major in journalism from Red River College and a bachelors in Rhetoric and Communications from the University of Winnipeg.
Deeply rooted in the city’s hockey culture, the original Jets skipped town when he was two and the 2.0 version came onto the scene when he was 17.